Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Review: House

House is not a new book; it was published in 1985, long before I decided to become an architect (really long before). But I was reading a post on the blog Life Without Buildings recently that reminded me of this book. Author Tracy Kidder has since gone on to write Mountains Beyond Mountains, which is a much better known book, but House is a really worthwhile read as well, especially for anyone contemplating a building project of their own.

A journalist, Kidder spent two years with the Souweine family, their architect William Rawn, and their builders, through the entire process of building their Greek revival home in South Amherst, Massachusetts. Kidder’s sympathies, in my opinion, rest squarely with the builders of Apple Corps, a small cooperative of (former hippie) carpenters.
Jim [Locke of Apple Corps] said, “When you see a house written up in the New York Times Magazine, they usually give the name of just the architect and the owner, and I think the builder has every right to be passed off.” Jim leaned against the kitchen counter. “The thing about the architect is, the architect is sort of the artist, and the practical person who works with his hands always disdains the architect. Why should I be able to make a living doing that, just because his head works in a different way? But there are these things that Bill should know, and I have to come up with them.”

Jim raised his voice lightly. There was a little new color in his face. What was the cause of his argument with Jonathan [Souweine]? It was money, obviously. When the Souweines want to add something to their house, Jim’s the one who has to put a price tag on it. He’s the one who has to put a meter on their dreams.

“I’ve gotta bring reality to the Souweines. He brings them the pretty pictures. I bring that.” Jim smacked his fist into his open palm. “I’ve gotta bring them that.” He punched his hand once more. “And that,“ he said, and then he smiled.
This is a really wonderfully told story. The writing is simple and straightforward, but really evocative of place and emotion. I will say, though, I’ve read this book several times, and every time it succeeds in pissing me off. I get so frustrated with the builders, and the clients, and even with the architect. That’s what I get for reading books that hit so close to home! But I can’t deny that this is a really good book. Architects may decide to skip this one to avoid frustration and anyone in the middle of a home renovation should probably stay away (House would also certainly serve as a cautionary tale for anyone planning on building their own home). But for anyone who likes well-written nonfiction, I highly recommend House.

Here are reviews from when House was originally published in Time Magazine and the New York Times (may require log in).

Buy House on Amazon.

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